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Why Americans May — Or May Not — Blame Biden For Higher Gas Prices

When President Biden announced last week that he was banning Russian oil imports to the United States to retaliate against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he conceded that Americans would pay more for gas as a result. “Defending freedom is going to cost,” Biden said. “It’s going to cost us as well.”

But higher prices at the pump and elsewhere aren’t new. For nearly a year now, Americans have faced sharply rising inflation, and the latest numbers were further confirmation of that reality: U.S. prices last month rose 7.9 percent year-over-year, the largest such increase since 1982 and a continuation of a worrying trajectory as the country recovers from the pandemic recession and a beaten-down supply chain.

It’s possible that this trajectory worsens, too, as the global economic outlook has gotten a lot more uncertain following Russia’s invasion late last month. Prices for oil, wheat and other resources have skyrocketed as countries around the world impose harsh sanctions against Russian industries, and U.S. gas prices have ticked all the way up to $4.17 per gallon.

It’s a precarious situation for Biden because inflation and, in particular, higher gas prices — including those spurred by overseas oil crises — have been shown to drag down presidential approval. At the same time, presidents haven’t always experienced lower approval as a result of these conflicts, so it’s possible that, given the situation in Ukraine, Americans won’t blame Biden for higher gas prices as they have blamed past presidents.

Higher gas prices are hardly the only result of inflation, but they are one of the most visible and visceral realities of inflation for Americans. Scholarship has found that consumer sentiment gets significantly more pessimistic in response to rising gas prices, and that Americans form higher inflation expectations and change their spending habits when they see higher gas prices

Higher gas prices have also been shown to drag down presidential approval. As I wrote back in December, overall inflation has been associated with several periods of downturn in presidential approval, and research has also found that higher gas prices typically have a significant and negative effect on presidents’ approval ratings. But it’s not as simple as higher gas prices meaning lower presidential approval, according to Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University who has researched the link between presidential approval and economic indicators.

Namely, situations like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine can play a role in whether Americans blame Biden — or something or someone else, like Russia and Vladimir Putin — for inflation, according to Krosnick. And in this particular situation, it’s possible many Americans will tolerate higher gas prices as a result of sanctions against Russia, according to recent surveys from YouGov/The Economist and Quinnipiac University

“The impact of economic indicators on presidential approval depends upon the attribution that the public makes for the cause of economic indicators getting better or worse,” said Krosnick. “In other words, what matters here is whether the president can reasonably be held responsible for what happened to gas prices, or anything else [can].”

In fact, higher gas prices resulting from foreign oil shocks haven’t always worsened presidential approval ratings. Take, for example, the 1990 oil shock, which was caused by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2 of that year. Even as the price of oil spiked, former president George H.W. Bush’s approval jumped over 16 percentage points in less than a month as the international community swiftly condemned Iraq’s actions, and it rose again after the U.S.-led intervention in early 1991. Moreover, the price of oil returned to roughly prior levels in less than a year.

It’s unlikely that Biden will see this kind of upswell in his presidential approval rating, but it is true that we haven’t yet seen a drop in his presidential approval to accompany the long lines at the pump — in fact, we’ve seen the opposite. Biden’s approval today is about the same as it was at the start of the Ukraine crisis and has actually rebounded since the initial days of the invasion, a period of time over which prices have risen considerably. He could be seeing a bump from his State of the Union address and from the Ukraine crisis itself, and as Krosnick noted, U.S. presidential approval often responds positively to international conflicts — even if big swings in approval are mostly a thing of the past.

One other factor working in Biden’s favor is that the U.S. is far less dependent on foreign oil than it was during the 1973 and 1979 energy crises. “At the time, if OPEC countries decided that they wanted to reduce production, that was it,” said Francesco D’Acunto, a professor of finance at Boston College. “Even if we see that prices are increasing [right now], we haven’t yet observed anything close to what was happening in the late ’70s,” he added. 

However, Biden is still walking a tightrope on inflation. Inflation was high even before a foreign conflict pumped more uncertainty into the U.S. economy, and most Americans disapproved of Biden’s handling of inflation prior to the Ukraine crisis. Moreover, as with much polling on foreign policy, voters often take their cues from elites on which policies to support, and it’s quite possible that they’ll end up reflecting partisan loyalties when evaluating how Biden has handled what’s happening in Ukraine.

All of that could lead Americans to rate the economy more poorly and, thus, hurt Biden’s political prospects. But it is still far too early to tell whether the conflict’s potentially negative effects on the U.S. economy will be just another economic issue Americans blame him for — or one that they’re willing to tolerate.

Santul Nerkar was a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.